Two of the most insightful psychographic surveys that profile the purchasing behavior of the U.S. travel consumer – The Harris Poll and the American Express Travel Agent Survey – came out this week within a day of each other.  Although some of their conclusions differed, one key finding resonated in both surveys: the ability to find a good travel deal will predicate many consumers’ decision to take their summer vacation.

This is great news for travel affiliates and, yes, even for travel suppliers (better to discount their product to entice the consumer to travel than seeing the airline seat, hotel room, cruise berth or tour package go unsold).  A close look at each survey reveals some other interesting trends that savvy travel affiliate marketers and travel suppliers can use to help make this summer a success.

Let’s take a look at The Harris Poll, which was released on May 19th.  Seeking to understand the American travel consumer’s summer 2009 vacation plans and motivations, Harris Interactive surveyed 2,401 U.S. adults between April 13 and April 21.  Not unexpectedly, a large number – 35% – stated that as a consequence of the staggering economy, they are not planning on taking any leisure trips this summer.  However, the remaining 65% not only indicated that they are not willing to relinquish or postpone their summer vacations, but more importantly, 17% said they would take more trips this summer than last!  Moreover, while 28% said they’d limit themselves to just one leisure trip, 19% said they’d be taking 2 leisure trips within the next four months, 15% stated they’d take 3-5, and 2% said their likely to take more than 6 trips during the same period.

Harris estimates the those consumers who will take leisure trips this summer will spend on average $1,629, although 17% of all vacationers will spend between $2,000 – $4,999, and 7% will exceed $5,000 on their leisure trips.  That’s some serious money, particularly in a poor economy like the one we find ourselves in today.

Harris also identified the actions and measures many travel consumers are taking to moderate the effect of the bad economy as well as reduce their overall spend on their travel during the next 12 months:

  • Find less expensive activities                                                         60%
  • Find less expensive meal options                                                   60%
  • Find less expensive accommodations                                              52%
  • Reduce travel expenses by vacationing closer to home                     50%
  • Reduce travel expenses by driving rather than flying                        39%
  • Stay with friends or family instead of hotel                                      39%
  • Cook my own meals while on vacation instead of dining out              39%
  • Share costs with other family members/friends                                31%

For those travelers looking to moderate their leisure trip spending  – as well as the 17% that will be taking more vacations this year than last – travel products and services that are effectively perceived as ‘deals’ will in many cases be the difference between the consumer buying or spurning the travel affiliate’s or travel supplier’s travel offer.  As Harris notes in its survey: “…it is important to be especially mindful of people looking to cut costs.  [The travel industry] Offering deals to people will be especially important this summer.”

American Express (Amex) took a different approach to assessing the mindset of the leisure traveler consumer in that they sought their answers from one industry cohort that arguably has its collective finger on the pulse of the leisure traveler – travel agents.  Surveying 603 U.S. travel agents working in its own network, American Express Travel found that “…their clients are adjusting to the recession by making slight changes to help offset summer vacation costs.”

In their survey results released on May 18th, two-thirds of all agents said that their clients “…simply feel that their summer vacation is too important to their mental health to give it all up, in spite of the economy, and 45% say that travelers are booking about the same length vacations this year as in the past, and one in four agents report hearing from their clients that they are sacrificing other luxuries in order to go on their summer vacation.” Moreover, according to Amex travel agents, while travel consumers are not averse to making cost-saving trade-offs for their summer vacation plans, flexibility and value are the key influences and buying criteria used by their customers.

Here are some of the additional stats that underscore the Amex agent’s observations and conclusions:

  • On the trip element side, Amex agents reported travelers are most flexible on travel dates, destinations and types of accommodations
  • Conversely, travelers are more rigid and prefer not to modify their preferences for length of trip, or eschew non-stop flights in favor of connecting flights to save on air fare cost
  • To save money, travelers are also choosing destinations where the U.S. dollar is strong, taking vacations closer to home, and booking their vacations closer-in to date of departure

Amex also cited the top domestic and international destinations where the ‘best value’ for U.S. travelers can be had:

Domestic                                          International

– Las Vegas                                                    – Rome

– Orlando                                                       – London

– Ft Lauderdale                                               – Paris

– New York                                                     – Madrid

– Los Angeles                                                 – Prague

From TravelDividends perspective, the most critical finding in Amex’s survey, and the one that matches Harris’ poll, is the following: “However, a key determining factor to take that trip is [the client’s] ability to find a good value and deal.  Eighty-three percent of agents reported receiving more inquiries about deals this year than in the recent past.” Indeed, 48% of Amex agents noted that some of their customers are jumping at the “abundance of travel deals currently available”; these deals enable the travelers to effectively ‘upgrade’ some aspect of their trip, be it on the air, land or trip length of stay.

Although we understand both polls were conducted before the publicly reported cases of the H1N1 “Swine Flu” Virus, TravelDividends believes that each represents a fair and accurate snapshot of the current wants, needs and purchasing behavior of U. S. travel consumers.  To a large extent, whether these travel consumers buy through travel agents, travel affiliates or directly through travel suppliers, their shopping and buying characteristics are unlikely to differ by channel.  Towards that end, as the summer (and fall) booking season is now in full swing, we suggest that travel affiliates use these travel consumer insights to their advantage.  Work with your travel supplier partners and affiliate networks to select and build a ‘right-sized’ product offering, and design your campaign around these consumer shopping and buying attributes. If done right, than all three of you – travel affiliates, travel suppliers and affiliate networks – will be winners.

Let us know what you’ve been seeing with your customers…are they following the same shopping and buying patterns as those identified by Harris Interactive and American Express?  If not, what’s different?  What tactics and strategies have you been deploying in your business to overcome some of the economic and financial concerns consumers are dealing with?   We welcome your thoughts and ideas, as do our readers.  Thanks for helping to ‘keep America traveling this summer!’